As I stepped out of the airport in Mauritius and began my journey towards the main island all I could see around was long stretches of sugar cane fields with occasional sightings of a few Indian men and women who looked right out of a Bollywood movie from the 60’s. I got curious and asked around to explore their India connection and found out that during the British colonization, sugar cane farmers from the fields of north India were taken to Mauritius to work in the sugar cane fields to exploit their expertise and understanding of the crop. They never returned. While India has changed in many ways since then, the Indians in Mauritius are still keeping that connection alive.
Interestingly, India’s connection with distillation goes back to at least 1500 years. While there have been many mythological references to sugar cane as an important crop in India, the accurate history of distillation seems to be uncertain. Although, there are references to drinks such as ‘Soma’ in the images of kings and emperors courts offering evidence of a certain kind of intoxicating drink served for their entertainment, ‘Sura’- a kind of strong beer, prepared from grain (barley or rice) was popular amongst the lower class. Yet, the official records on the history of alcohol consumption in India are obscure. However, the definitive moment came during the British Raaj (rule) in India.
The British contribution – Rum, Beer, and Whisky
The British officers posted in India often longed for their favourite tipple. Besides the regular ration of Scotch whisky, wine, that they received from England, they were too keen to start brewing and distilling locally. That’s when they found a place, Kasauli, a small cantonment town in Solan district of Himachal Pradesh. Commissioned by Edward Abraham Dyer the Kasauli distillery and brewery were set up in 1855 with equipment brought from England and Scotland. Some of the original equipment including the copper pot stills is still in use in the distillery today. Later on, the brewery was moved to Solan whereas the distillery is still operational in Kasauli (the highest in the world with 2000m altitude). The company Dyer Breweries limited was later merged with Meakin Breweries Limited and now operates as Mohan Meakin Ltd., the producer of the most iconic rum brand from India, Old Monk, since 1954. Kasauli distillery, the oldest distillery in Asia is also known for its single malt brand Solan No1, the most popular Indian whisky brand until the 80’s.
There was also a man named Gordon Shaw who owned the Assam Frontier Tea Company. He appointed Charles William Wallace and got into the liquor business in 1886. Later when British were leaving India in late 40’s beside successfully running the Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) business Shaw Wallace had also diversified its business to many other fields. In 2005 United Breweries Group, the company owned by Vijay Mallya’s father acquired Shaw Wallace, and the rest is history. The whiskies, Royal Challenge and Director’s Special from Shaw Wallace’s IMFL portfolio later became a part of the United Spirits Limited.
Sugar Cane production and Distillation process and Use of molasses as bio-fuel
The distilleries in India are linked to the country’s sugar cane production. They have also been modified in the last few years to have a high-quality standard of producing ethanol, with a volume capacity of above 1.5 billion liters per year. In states such as Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh, sugar factories make the molasses for industrial alcohol. After the Second World War, there was a surplus of molasses as the by-product of sugar production in India. A joint committee of representatives from states producing sugar cane such as UP and Bihar later resolved this problem by advising to produce industrial alcohol, ethanol to mixed with petrol as motor fuel. Biofuel production from grains may be allowed in other parts of the world but India, it has mainly been sourced from molasses. However, off late grain-based ethanol has been produced by a number of distilleries in the country.
Distillers in India producing Rum and Whisky (IMFL)
The domestic liquor industry recently saw a big shift with Diageo’s acquisition of India’s number one spirits company United Spirits Limited. Besides USL, the other major domestic players are Radico Khaitan, Allied Blender’s and Distillers, Tilak Nagar Industries, Khoday’s, Amrut Distilleries, John Distilleries, Simbhaoli Sugars, Empee Distilleries, Jagatjit Industries, Mohan Meakin Ltd., I brands and the new entrant Wild Tiger Beverages etc. Interestingly, almost all IMFL rum and whisky brands are made from molasses.
The bulk of the spirits consumption is still domestic whisky, rum, vodka and brandy. The liquor industry in India is estimated to be around Rs41, 000 crores. Since the existing alcohol labelling laws still have some grey areas, not just Indian whisky but also rum is put under the law as just ‘neutral spirit’ allowing it to be any ethyl alcohol of agricultural origin, in this case, distilled from molasses.
While all over the world rum is defined as an alcoholic drink from fermented sugar cane juice or molasses with certain described taste, smell and flavour profiles of rum, the Indian laws still allows natural extracts, artificial flavours, colours etc. not always referring to the age of the rum. Only a handful of rum producers such as Amrut Distilleries and Wild Tiger Beverages have brands that go through some minimum oak aging.
Out of the total liquor market in India, around 93% is still controlled by spirits (Imported plus IMFL) out of which only 16% is the rum market.
Rum Brands in India
In the IMFL segment, brands such as Contessa, Celebrations, Old Monk, Mc Dowells No 1, Old Port, Jolly Rogers, Hercules, Amrut’s Classic XXX still have a stronghold whereas in the premium category, brands such as Two Indies natural Rum with no artificial flavours, blended with matured Rum made from Indian Jaggery and Wild Tiger Rum which is aged in American Oak casks are set to change the trend. In the premium and super premium rum category, Bacardi, Captain Morgan, Havana Club, Ron Zacapa, El Dorado and Malibu have a significant presence too.
While rising income levels and aspirations of the young consumers is pushing for the premiumisation of alcohol in the country, it will be interesting to see an upgrade in the rum market where more and more companies decide to use the aromatic blends of natural cane juice spirit and molasses spirit instead of artificial flavours.
(This article was originally featured in the french magazine Rumporter on 29/03/2017)